Welcome to the blog of Commissioner Clive Adams. Leader of The Salvation Army United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland

Blog: Who is your neighbour?

10 June 2014 - 2:43pm
| by Clive Adams

A man was on a journey when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him bare, taking everything  and left him with no good reason to carry on living. Having no home, for that, too, had been lost, he stopped outside the Church and began to settle into a secluded, but secure, doorway to shelter for the night. But, the pastor of the Church had placed sharp metal spikes in the cold cement slab; spikes which, defying all health and safety regulations, pointed menacingly up at him, defying him to lie there and be stabbed in the back… again!

So he stumbled painfully away and, down the road, discovered the doorway to the offices of a law firm. But, he had not gotten as far as dropping his heavy bag before the pungent stench of bleach assailed his runny nose and he quickly left the scene. (He had noticed that some owners around the city were spraying their entrances with bleach and the acridity was so overpowering that it prevented anyone taking shelter in those doorways.)

Wearily, he wandered farther, feeling as if he had been attacked all over again, stripped bare and left for dead. But, soon after, he was stopped by someone – an immigrant, from the Romani people. He was homeless himself, but had found shelter in a disused garage down an alleyway. So, the Romani immigrant took in the victim. He gave him shelter and shared the meagre rations he had.

Some of you will recognise the similarities with Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan and what I have written above. I thought about the good Samaritan story when I saw an article in the Guardian newspaper.

Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan in answer to a question. It was a crucial question in the context of their conversation and it remains a crucial question in our day as we seek to deal with the challenges we face, not least the challenge which people who are homeless face and present to us.

Who is my neighbour?

The way we define who our neighbour is will determine, to a large extent, how we react to the article in The Guardian. Feelings of outrage could be vented towards homeless people as much as it could towards those who have mounted the bed of spikes – depending on who you perceive your neighbour to be. Equally, feelings of empathy could be directed towards one or other of the people on either side of this ‘bed of spikes’, so to speak. Indeed, it is even possible to feel for both groups. It all hinges on an understanding of who my neighbour is.

And, there lies the challenge – we are talking about people. Indeed, we are talking about some of the most vulnerable people in society. They are exposed to all kinds of dangers and terrors, having to survive in appalling conditions. These are people and, when society allows people to be treated in the same way as we would treat animals (as per the cattle-grids we use to keep animals at bay ), then something happens to all of us – to those who actually do it, to those who endure it and to the rest of us who observe it. We become less than we should be as people. We let ourselves down when spikes are used like cattle-grids to keep ‘undesirables’ away.

This is a complex situation – I would be obtuse to pretend that it is not. I can understand the genuine concern, especially for those who are elderly or young, and fear at encountering a strange person curled up in a doorway of a residential building. The residents living in those flats are our neighbours, too. But, placing spikes in entrances is not the solution!

The spikes dehumanise homeless people. By treating them as we treat troublesome animals, the spikes remove the obligation and, indeed, the inconvenience of having to have any personal contact with an individual. As in other aspects of their lives, homeless people are rendered even more anonymous by the spikes – there is no need for any interaction from another human being, the spikes drive them away. The system – again – contrives to conspire against them, reinforcing their faceless dehumanisation. And, for society, the problem of their homelessness is not resolved, it is simply moved to another location.

The problem is much deeper than the mere removal of spikes, of course. The ‘robbers’ need to be identified and, as is possible, eliminated! That is a complicated and long-term process that in the meantime will see many others attacked and stripped down beyond their own humanity before those ‘robbers’ can be arrested. And, the numbers of homeless people rise and the temptation to raise barriers increases.

The Salvation Army is committed to working with the authorities to address the immense challenge presented by homelessness in the country. We see the need to work together in order to tackle the problem and help these, our neighbours. Although parameters are important in our partnership, the existence of spikes is indicative of a need for a measure of flexibility.

• Should we be discussing direct-access possibilities for these neighbours?
• Should those who partner with the authorities be given the freedom to help those we find robbed, stripped beyond their humanity, driven from pillar to post, but not eligible to be helped by the authorities because they do not qualify for help locally?
• Should we be challenging the local definition of ‘homeless’ as rigorously as Jesus challenged the lawyer’s definition of neighbourliness?

After establishing that true neighbours go out of their way to help each other, in the story of the good Samaritan, Jesus concludes by saying: “Go and do likewise!” I would appeal to all of us, rather than leave homeless people unacknowledged and unattended – by letting spikes deal with them - let us “go and do likewise” by determining to do two simple things:

1. Acknowledge their existence as people, by looking them in the eye and greeting them instead of trying to “walk on the other side”;

2. Connect them with Streetlink, which provides local support for people who are homeless

In the meantime, The Salvation Army calls on the authorities to end the inhumane measure of embedding spikes in doorways to keep homeless people away. I call on the authorities to end the inhumane measure of embedding spikes in doorways to keep homeless people away. And, I call on Salvationists to consider adding their names to the petition to end the inhumane measure of embedding spikes in doorways to keep homeless people away.

Go and do likewise – after all, these people are your neighbours!

[1]Author’s note:  Although the robbers are never “identified” because they are not pertinent to the man’s immediate challenges, their “identities” are worth delving into once the immediate crisis is addressed, because they may prevent similar “robberies” occurring in future

[2] He lost his decency, his pride, his sense of purpose, his place, his sense of belonging, his identity, his humanity

[3] Or the spikes used to prevent pigeons from landing on buildings



Submitted by LK on

Great comment, and superb modern 'take' on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Thanks. I couldn't see the link to the petition, though. Can you post it here?

Submitted by Annette Wicks on

Good questions. Our hall hosts 60+ homeless people each week in partnership with Faith in Action charity and we participate in the winter shelter scheme. However I often feel helpless as a SA officer when my ability to help someone find a bed far exceeds public expectation. Please continue to reflect...

Submitted by Kevin Fenton-Herring on

I wonder if anyone that signs this petition will do so at the same time as removing any gates or defining barriers to their own property? After all, how easy for us (as the outraged middle class) to call on other property owners, via social media, to remove barriers while leaving our own barriers (more cleverly disguised as gates, walls or hedges) in place.....instead of playing the easy role of the "outraged" (after all, hasn't outrage replaced actions these days in terms of appeasing our own consciences?)I agree that we really should utilise the offensive "spikes" discussion to examine the planks (I am sure i have read something about spikes and planks in eyes somewhere before) in our own eyes and do something practical to help the homeless.....after all, how many of us actually have a clue about the Salvation Army's homeless work in our own towns? The removal of the spikes is not a solution at all and in my humble opinion a million signatures on that petition will only result in another doorway for a homeless person to sleep in.....While we are discussing barriers, can we also debate other barriers, such as The Salvation Army's over reliance on Government funding which may also prevent it from actually helping the very people that may be wandering around looking for a "spikeless corner" somewhere?

Submitted by Rita Spender on

Although I feel sorry for the man you mention, but why didn't he go and report the robbers to the Police. I do not believe in the spikes, but at 75 yrs old I would be very afraid if this person had tried to sleep on my step. and I would have called the Police. I would like to say how much I admire your care and devotion to these poor people.

Submitted by John Howe on

Thank you Commissioner for highlighting this abhorrent action some people have took. I don't understand a country that goes out of its way to help starving refugees around the third world but will not help the lost in their own country. I wish people would take a leaf out of Mother Teresa's book sometimes. She would not be fazed by the numbers of people needing help, she would tell us to start where we are and start with the nearest!

Submitted by Katie Jones on

Commissioner- the spikes aren't the problem- the fact that homeless people have nowhere else to go is the problem. Local authorities are keen on measures to move homelessness onto someone else's patch. Witness Westminster, where Army homelessness provision has been curtailed in response to local authority pressure. The best way to find the 'freedom' to help those who do not 'qualify' for help under local authority imposed red tape is to stop making ourselves beholden to that bureaucracy. I am aware of one corps which wanted to open its doors this winter in the sub zero temperatures to the homeless, but spent so long agreeing terms with the local authority and waiting for briefings from the police etc that winter was over and the shelter never opened its doors at all. The homeless people in the locality were out in the cold whilst we twiddled our thumbs and risk assessed opening our doors to those in need according to someone else's priorities. The parable of the Good Samaritan is notable not for endorsement of lengthy risk assessment, but for responding to need immediately and without needing anyone else's approval when he saw it because it was the right thing to do.

Submitted by Tom Johnson on

Clive I completely agree, I saw you mentioned the spikes as I too was horrified at the idea of using mechanical devices to move humans. War itself amongst humans is mechanical enough, the idea of bringing mechancal means to our streets is frankly disturbing, and more importantly to the people who cant defend themselves from such approaches. My fear is what is next? Either way are we losing our grounds for being human and truly loving thy neighbour?

Submitted by Tom Jones on

One of the biggest malaises afflicting The Salvation Army in the United Kingdom is the matter of bowing to secular authority - worse than that, seeking to ingratiate itself by compromising its own mission to suit the ends of others. As someone with experience in Public Affairs, I well understand the criticality of lobbying those in power, but as the Commissioner himself states more than once in his piece, the 'Army 'works with the authorities'. That is of itself a problem. In certain places, the Army actually works *for* them - contracts let by Government included.

When Rochester Row closed amidst something of a furore in 2010, Major Julian Watchorn told 'The Pavement', when asked to comment on speculation that the local authority had induced the closure to get rid of Eastern Europeans off their patch, "The Salvation Army seeks to work with local authorities to address the needs that are presenting in communities…”. What does the Salvation Army do when local authorities *don’t want* to do, and don’t want *us* to do, what we believe we should? I see little evidence that we do it anyway and "for his sake, fear not to lose mens' favour" any more.

It runs contrary to the fundamental foundations of Salvationism to compromise our mission to suit someone else's. So why do we continue to do it? I have seen it in a provincial corps in recent months, where an attempt at making homelessness provision was filibustered into oblivion thanks to the corps' insistence on letting the local authority, police and every other Tom, Dick and Harry, tell them how and when they should do it. After a winter of meetings, not a single homeless person was accommodated at the corps in question because the LA's conditions weren't met, and heaven forbid anyone should have done it without their agreement!

The answers to the enduring problems of homelessness etc are many, varied and complex, but the Army cannot hope to be a prophetic voice criticising and challenging uncaring or recalcitrant local authorities if its silence is bought by golden handcuffs or the result of insufficient corporate nerve to fly in the face of secular powers with which our mission cannot coexist and allow God to sustain us through any consequential hardship.

I am relatively ambivalent about the spikes themselves. Nobody has ever made such a fuss about benches in public places with intermediate armrests, which are intended not to be slept on also - not only by homeless people but by drunks who simply didn't make it home. Bleach in doorways is also a necessity occasioned by the effects of people urinating in the street, which is none too pleasant either (plenty of the 'product' to be sampled close to the Regent Hall on a Sunday morning!).

The ultimate problem here isn't the ability of people to sleep anywhere they like - the problem here is homelessness and absolute poverty, and societal apathy to these things. Booth found men sleeping under London's bridges; he didn't sign a petition for more space to be made under bridges - he got in and dealt with homelessness and connected issues, and made his Army unpopular in some quarters, successful in those which mattered, and it grew in stature and influence.

On the matter of petitioning authorities, which is being encouraged, scholars of Army history will know that one morning many years ago, Bramwell Booth met with a girl found sleeping in the doorway of International Headquarters in London, who asked to speak with him. Booth, W.T. Stead and friends subsequently pulled off one of the most audacious and successful examples of their time, of sensitising the public to an injustice and forcing authorities to act. On the other hand, I have tried petitioning UKTHQ (though not during Commissioner Adams’ tenure, to be clear) on matters relating to family breakdown - the single biggest factor affecting users of the Army’s homelessness provision - and such petitions prompted neither action nor even acknowledgement.

‘The Seeds of Exclusion’, an Army-commissioned report, said "The findings of this study indicate that current and past relationship problems are a characteristic of people who use the homeless services provided by The Salvation Army”, and noted as ‘key findings’ that:

"If the seeds of social exclusion have been sown in the childhood experiences of this generation of homeless people The Seeds of Exclusion report warns that these seeds will be further propagated in the next generation unless action is taken. Those who had poor relationships with their parents were more likely to have been homeless as children… ...This cycle continued as more than half of the women interviewed, and slightly less than half of the men interviewed, were also parents: 38% of women and 42% of men had no contact with their children."
"Where respondents noted they had a poor relationship with their father this was found to be linked to the person’s criminal behaviour as an adult. The relationship with a person’s mother was equally essential, as poor maternal relationships were linked to an individual’s anti-social behaviour throughout their life. This suggests good relationships with parents may be crucial to preventing homelessness in childhood and at later stages of life."

Despite this analysis, nothing like the fervour which has been expended over ‘spikes’ has been invested in tackling these issues. Nobody seems to want to talk about the Salvation Army’s absent voice in the debate about supporting and standing up for parents and children in fractured families - like mine - those the Army deems at greatest risk of becoming homeless - but I am invited by the Army to petition the very authorities the Army says it ‘works with’ to remove a barrier to people sleeping on a particular part of someone else’s private property? I find that to be a very sad paradox indeed.

Commissioner, I implore you to lead from the front. Take the people of the Territory, whom you have gathered around you so successfully, and lead them to act, with audacity, on the issues of real consequence no matter how (un)popular; to act 'Under God' as General Clifton said - at every level, with total disregard for the whims, dogma and vanity of politics; to truly 'serve suffering humanity'.

Submitted by Kenneth Guest on

Thank you Commissioner for highlighting this issue. However whilst there are people who have no recourse to public funds and sleep in the streets and in doorways because not Even The Salvation Army will help them with accommodation, while corps officers across the territory have to use bed and breakfasts for the homeless because we as officers can't get them into our own hostels, whilst The Salvation Army put government funding before people, and whilst we continue to bury and ignore the very roots and mission of the organisation, there will always be homeless people, and they will continually be moved on and spikes and bleach is only just the beginning. We as an organisation, we as the church of God should take risks and stand out from the crowd. We live in an age where even people working full time are finding themselves homeless. It is easy to condemn those who don't want homeless people sleeping in their doorways less easy to provide a solution. May God give our leadership wisdom to do what's right!

Submitted by Glenn Roberts on

Very interesting read, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Kevin Fenton-Herring's response. Very measured indeed.
Really glad to see the singer Tom Jones has a heart for The Salvation Army, that is encouraging.

I would be interested in knowing, did any of the responders above open their own homes during the winter cold, or were they in their houses twiddling their thumbs while thinking of more ways to complain.

Yes, William Booth told Bramwell to 'go do something' however, William Booth also spoke to and worked with policy makers. He did not simply criticise them because he disliked their lack of care.

Commissioner, keep engaging with Government and local authority as you already do, the Army has a voice and is a voice.

'Some say The Salvation Army is a welfare agency, that is a mistake. The Salvation Army is a vital spiritual force with an acute social conscience' Rt Hon. Arthur Meighen.

Submitted by Margaret Coles on

One of your people prepared to sit in the gutters and loose his reputation, living amongst the homeless, made this comment on the Salvation Army. 'It needs to learn to die first'. In an age of self-serving complacency, I have found this to be so true. Only when you loose your own home can you know what it's like to be homeless. That's why Jesus did. He left His Father's home for the sake of men but from birth to death found no shelter with them. We must be prepared for the same.

Submitted by Stephen Poxon on

Thank you, Commissioner Clive. I wonder if we might accelerate the decision-making around the issue of (Salvation Army) direct access? Could you look into that afresh, please? Would you mind? (I'd be happy to help.) I know these matters are anything but an exact science, and I gently enter that plea without judging anyone at all who is actively engaged in Salvation Army social care (God knows, everyone is doing their level best), but the issues surrounding access are way, way too complex. Thank you.

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